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Wednesday 29th Jun 2016

In last week's column, I discussed some of the underachieving starting pitchers who were purchased for a hefty sum, 20 bucks or more, at the Mixed Auction Tout Wars draft table. Let's switch over to the hitting side this week, and while I maintain my stance that investing heavily in hitters rather than pitchers is the safer route, this doesn't mean that all of the expensive hitters are sure things. On that note, here are my picks for the five most disappointing 20-plus dollar hitters relative to draft cost. Fortunately, none of these guys reside on my Tout Wars roster, though I was involved in the bidding for a few of them. Sometimes, you just need a little bit of luck.

Giancarlo Stanton ($39) - There's nothing wrong with 14 homers through 63 games. But when those 14 homers are tied to a .213 batting average (.313 OBP), a mere 34 RBI and a $39 price tag, there's something wrong. Plus, Stanton is whiffing at a career-high rate and only two of his 14 home runs have come in the month of June. The good news is that he has managed to stay healthy, and the streaky slugger is the type of hitter who can carry your offense when he's hot. I'm not too concerned. The Marlins outfielder actually makes for a fine trade target if he can be acquired at a discount.

Andrew McCutchen ($38) - Aside from a declining stolen base total, McCutchen has been one of the game's most consistent across-the-board fantasy producers for quite some time now, and he carries added value in OBP leagues like Tout (career .383 OBP). Coming off four straight seasons of at least 21 homers, 83 RBI. 89 runs scored and a .400 OBP, McCutchen seemed like a fair buy at $38, and I was in on the bidding until the end. As it turns out, the Pirates centerfielder sports an uninspiring .317 OBP through 70 games along with a career-high strikeout rate and career-low walk rate. The optimist can point out that he's still on pace to finish the season with 22 homers and 85 runs scored. But after showing some positive signs in May, his bat has again gone cold this month (.259 OBP, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 5 R). There's still time for the 29-year-old to get his season back on track, but I wouldn't blame McCutchen owners, especially those in non-OBP leagues, if they choose to swap him for a respectable return.

Carlos Gomez ($26) - Gomez did spend the second half of May on the DL, so his numbers are slightly deflated by the missed time. Still, there's really nothing positive to say about his 2016 season, though eight steals in 53 games is decent. Maybe his .292 AVG (.361 OBP), three homers and three swipes in June is a sign that Gomez has finally figured things out. Or maybe not. I wouldn't go out of my way to trade for him at this point. On the other hand, I wouldn't go out of my way to deal him for pennies on the dollar.

Prince Fielder ($24) - After being sidelined for most of the 2014 season, Fielder bounced back nicely last year, delivering a .305-23-98 stat line. This season has been a different story. Not only is Fielder on pace for only 13 home runs, but his OBP through 70 games sits at .272, this compared to his career .382 mark. Track record aside, considering that he has yet to piece together any sort of hot streak, I'd look elsewhere for buy-low opportunities.

Yasiel Puig ($21) - Heading into this season, there was a great deal of hype surrounding Puig, with many fantasy pundits deeming him this year's ideal discounted player, the kind of player that wins championships. I wasn't quite buying it. In his only full season, back in 2014, the Cuban import posted a .296-16-69-92-11 line. Pretty good, but injuries and inconsistency have plagued him for most of his big league career, and is 21 bucks truly a discount? This year, he's on pace to finish with .249-13-45-52-9 totals in a season that has yet again included a DL stint. Perhaps an MVP season lies in the 25-year-old's future, but as long as the market continues to overvalue him, I'll continue to bet against it.

Spending big on starting pitching is risky, which is why I still refuse to do it, even in this new era of the pitcher. After all, pitchers tend to carry a higher degree of injury risk than hitters, and the year-to-year performance level of pitchers tends to be less predictable, even for the top-tier hurlers. In an auction, I usually draft one $20 arm, but the majority of my rotation consists of single-digit dollar players. Hopefully, my $20 guy earns his price, but overall, when drafting starting pitching, I like to limit the potential for disappointment.

Although the field of underachievers these days isn't quite as large as in years past, it always includes a handful of marquee names, and this year is no different. Thankfully, I do not own any of the following 20-plus dollar starting pitchers in Mixed Auction Tout Wars, though with three and a half months remaining in the season, there's still plenty of time for them to turn things around.

Matt Harvey ($29) - Maybe all of those innings last season have caught up with him. Or maybe Harvey's 2016 struggles have nothing to do with workload. The bottom line is that the Mets' Opening Day starter has managed to record just six quality starts in 14 tries and sports career-worst numbers in ERA, WHIP, hit rate and strikeout rate. Being that three of his six quality starts have come in his last four outings, there's reason to think that better days are ahead. But finishing the season as anything close to a $29 pitcher will be a tall order.

Corey Kluber ($26) - The 2014 AL Cy Young Award winner, Kluber posted a solid but not elite stat line last year. Despite this, he was still drafted as a fantasy ace this season, with many owners believing that a return to his 2014 form was within reach. Well, the Indians righty has pitched to a mediocre 4.23 ERA through 14 starts. But his 1.07 WHIP, 9.0 K/9 rate, 4.7 K/BB ratio and 2.94 FIP all suggest that Kluber is actually a wise trade target if he can be acquired at even a minimal discount.

Gerrit Cole ($22) - Perhaps it is unfair to include Cole on this list, as he's currently on the DL with a triceps injury. However, a glance at his 2016 stat line reveals that aside from the 2.77 ERA, the Pirates righty was falling well short of expectations, with a career-high WHIP and hit rate and career-low strikeout rate. The 25-year-old surely has a bright future, and he's already one of the top pitchers in the game. But with no clear return timetable, there's reason for his fantasy owners to be concerned. If I could trade him for 70 cents on the dollar, I might do it.   

Dallas Keuchel ($21) - Coming off a Cy Young season in 2015, Keuchel has yet to find his groove this year, and at this point, it's beginning to look like he may never find it. The Astros southpaw is 3-9 with a 5.54 ERA and 1.44 WHIP through 14 starts, and he has notched back-to-back quality starts just once. Hey, at least the strikeout rate (8.3 K/9) is strong. Keuchel owners can go ahead and see what they can get for him on the trade market, though I doubt the return will be overly exciting. Sitting tight and hoping for a turnaround could prove to be the better move.

Chris Archer ($20) - Speaking of sitting tight and hoping for a turnaround, this is the route I chose to take with Archer in the one league where I own him, a keeper league in which his cost was merely a ninth round pick. Unfortunately, this patient approach really isn't working out. The Rays righty is walking too many batters, allowing too many hits and serving up too many homers. His lofty strikeout rate (10.8 K/9) is the primary reason why he remains an every-week starter in most mixed leagues. Maybe it's wishful thinking, but I still believe that Archer will bounce back.

But even if he doesn't bounce back, at least I didn't spend big on him.

When drafting fantasy baseball squads, I pay a lot of attention to age. Maybe too much, but whether it is due to health issues or concerns over a potential decline in production, older players tend to be riskier investments. The problem is every year at least a handful of the guys purposely avoided prove me wrong and force me to question core draft day strategies. This season is no exception. So, who fits this description for 2016? Note that all of these players are at least 35-years old. Also note that I do not own any of these players.

David Ortiz - Retire? Really? Big Papi headlines this group, and for good reason. As of Saturday, Ortiz leads the Majors in both RBI (45) and OPS (1.126). And then there's the 12 homers through 43 games. In the Tout Wars Mixed Auction league, the 40-year-old was purchased for the modest price of $17. Not surprisingly, his owner, Bret Sayre, currently resides in first place.

Ben Zobrist - The Cubs signed Zobrist to a four-year, $56 million contract over the winter and has been well worth the price tag so far, boasting a .350/.454/.525 slash line with six homers, 31 RBI and 35 runs scored through 44 games. Zobrist's power days were thought to be long gone, but the 35-year-old is currently on pace to post his first 20-plus home run campaign since 2012. Oh, and Bret Sayre owns him too.

Rich Hill - I honestly thought little of Hill's impressive four starts to close out the 2015 season. Perhaps that was a mistake. I'm still skeptical as this is a pitcher who has not enjoyed an extended period of success in a starting role since 2007. On the other hand, there comes a time in every season when a hot start is no longer just a hot start. We're approaching that time, as the 36-year-old southpaw holds a 7-3 record to go along with a 2.18 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 10.1 K/9 rate through ten starts.

John Lackey - Five bucks was all it took to win Lackey's services in Mixed Auction Tout Wars this spring, and I found this a bit strange considering that the 37-year-old righty was coming off an exceptional 2015 campaign. But I guess my league mates were not too eager to own him, and he was nowhere near my target list. Well, all Lackey has done through nine starts is register a 3.38 ERA and 0.95 WHIP, good for fourth-best in the NL.

Santiago Casilla - Can this guy ever get any respect? Heading into this season, Casilla was largely viewed as a low-end #2/high-end #3 closer in mixed leagues despite notching 38 saves in 2015 while recording a sub-3.00 ERA. Crazy, right? And the worst part is for some reason, I bought into the consensus opinion, believing that the 35-year-old was bound to crash sooner or later. Apparently not, as we're at the one-third mark of the season and Casilla sports career-best numbers in almost every category. Go figure.

Carlos Beltran - OK, I lied about not owning any of these players, because I own Beltran in one league. OK, I own him in two leagues, including Tout Wars, where I shelled out two whole dollars to draft the former All-Star. As it turns out, Beltran leads my team in both home runs and RBI. I'm not naive, there's a good chance that I have already benefited from the best part of Beltran's season, and maybe a DL stint is right around the corner.

Or maybe not.

I had high hopes for Yasmani Grandal this year, so when I purchased him for the fair (or so I thought) price of $12 at the Tout Wars Mixed Auction, I was pleased. Despite battling various injuries throughout his young career, Grandal was coming off back-to-back 15-plus home run seasons, and his consistently high walk rates gave him added value in Tout, which uses OBP instead of AVG. I figured that a career year was in store for Grandal, who was entering his age-27 season. Well, I figured wrong. We're at the season's one-third mark and Grandal has managed just four home runs, 15 RBI, eight runs scored, and perhaps more importantly, a mediocre .296 OBP. Sure, there's still plenty of time for him to turn things around, but I'm losing patience with this guy. I might even be willing to deal him for a backstop with a lower ceiling just to get him off my roster. But whenever I begin to regret the Grandal pick, I keep reminding myself that 2016 has been a disappointing year for catchers in general, with far more fantasy disappointments (Russell Martin, Derek Norris, Yan Gomes, Stephen Vogt) than solid fantasy producers. In other words, most of my league mates are dealing with the same frustration. Which players are the exceptions? It wasn't easy to come up with five catchers who have at least earned their draft day price tag, let alone reward their owners with a profit, but let's meet the members of this distinguished group.

Jonathan Lucroy ($17) - Health was the biggest question mark surrounding Lucroy heading into this season, as he was coming off a 2015 campaign in which he was limited to 103 games due to injury. But health has not been an issue at all so far, and the Brewers catcher is delivering elite-level numbers, batting .304 with nine homers, 28 RBI, 28 runs scored and a .364 OBP through 51 games. Lucroy is earning every bit of his $17 price, which did not reflect any health risk discount.

Welington Castillo ($8) - Castillo's 17 home runs in 80 games following his trade to the Diamondbacks last season raised the possibility that a 25-homer campaign could be in store for 2016. I wasn't buying it considering his career track record, and at this point, it's looking like 20 home runs is a more realistic goal. After leaving the yard six times in April, he's recorded just one home run since. But barring a massive power outage, the 29-year-old should deliver at least eight bucks in value.

Francisco Cervelli ($6) - Power has never been a part of Cervelli's game, and he has yet to homer through 46 games this season. But with 21 RBI, 19 runs scored and a .366 OBP, the Pirates backstop is quietly establishing himself as a quality top-15 fantasy catcher. In a 15-team mixed league, this means that Cervelli is a viable #1 catcher, and a viable #1 catcher for six bucks sounds pretty good to me.

J.T. Realmuto ($5) - Realmuto has followed up a promising rookie season with a steady sophomore campaign, highlighted by a .294 batting average through 50 games. The two homers are a bit disappointing but Realmuto is one of the few catchers who actually steals bases, and he's on pace for nine swipes this season. At 25 years of age, he still has plenty of time to improve across the board. Don't be surprised if his $5 price looks like a bargain come September.

Wilson Ramos ($3) - After drafting Ramos two years in a row in Tout only to be let down, I decided that enough was enough, so when the bidding stalled at three bucks, I resisted the urge to jump in. Of course, the year I finally cut ties with the Nationals catcher is the year that he finally breaks out. Entering Saturday, Ramos is hitting .342 with seven home runs and 29 RBI. Then again, Ramos' .357 BABIP suggests that his current batting average is bound to drop considerably. And his lofty RBI total has been aided by an unsustainable .400 batting average (18-for-45) with runners in scoring position.

But as much as I try to dismiss Ramos' red-hot start to 2016, I must admit that I messed up by not sticking with him for another year.

Any takers for Yasmani Grandal?

Anyone?

Three seasons, three middle of the pack finishes. No, I haven't had much success since I began competing in NFBC Draft Champions leagues, a 15-team mixed format with a 50-round slow draft and no free agent pickups allowed. Since I consider the draft to be my strength as a fantasy owner, these consistently mediocre finishes are puzzling. There have been a few early-round busts over the years, but I always seem to make several strong late-round picks, and one would think that the late rounds are the most important rounds in this format.

But my fortunes might be changing this year, as I've resided in either first, second, or third place for almost the entire season. There weren't any major early-round busts this time, and I haven't lost my knack for finding late-round value. OK, enough about me. Well, sort of. This got me thinking about the best late-round picks from the standpoint of performance relative to round value. Here are my choices for the top five late-round hitters selected in NFBC Draft Champions League #3719, all drafted after Round 30.

Melvin Upton Jr. (Round 34, Pick 5) - When I took a chance on Upton as my eighth outfielder, I never really expected to start him barring multiple injuries to my other fly-chasers. But through 43 games, the player formerly known as B.J. has already tallied six homers and seven steals to go along with a respectable .266 batting average. A career .245 hitter, Upton is due for regression in that department, but the power and speed have always been a part of his game, and he seems to be revitalized in his first full season as a Padre. Upton made his first appearance in my starting lineup last week, and I wouldn't be surprised if he remains there for quite awhile, maybe even the rest of the season.

Travis Shaw (Round 35, Pick 15) - I devoted some space to Shaw in last week's column, so there isn't a lot more to say about this guy. A batting line of .310-6-29 through 42 games pretty much says it all.

Aledmys Diaz (Round 45, Pick 14) - Another player who I discussed last week, Diaz boasts a gaudy .373-6-23 stat line in 40 games this season. The 25-year-old shortstop might not see regular playing time once Jhonny Peralta returns from the DL next month, but logic says that the Cardinals will do their best to give Diaz as many at-bats as possible. Fantasy owners shouldn't be so quick to trade him now for a less than satisfactory return.

Jordy Mercer (Round 41, Pick 3) - Mercer has never quite lived up to expectations, but the 29-year-old is quietly putting together a quality season in 2016, highlighted by a career-best .298 batting average and .388 OBP. He will need to recapture the power stroke that produced 12 home runs back in 2014 to become a fantasy factor in standard 12-team mixed leagues. But as a starting MI in deeper formats, he's fine.

Brandon Drury (Round 42, Pick 5) - Drury's impressive offensive performance combined with his ability to play multiple positions has earned him everyday at-bats, and he's certainly making the most of the opportunity, hitting .309 with seven homers through 38 games. However, his 25-to-5 K/BB ratio suggests that a batting average correction could be on the horizon. Then again, the 23-year-old did post better plate discipline numbers in the Minors, so maybe the batting average correction will not be too drastic. The Diamondbacks are loaded with options at several positions, so Drury will always be under pressure to produce at the risk of losing at-bats.

And as the owner who drafted Drury in the 42nd round, this worries me. A lot.

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